What’s the least sophisticated, but probably the most foolproof, way to cut off a country’s Internet traffic? Literally cutting it by severing undersea Internet cables. That’s what the Egyptian navy caught three scuba divers doing in the waters 750 meters off the port city of Alexandria on Wednesday. The cable they were going after was the 18 000-kilometer-long South East Asia–Middle East–Western Europe 4 (SEA-ME-WE 4) line, the Internet backbone that carries data between Europe, Africa, the Indian subcontinent, and Malaysia and Singapore in southeast Asia.
Internet service in Egypt had already been off since 22 March, supposedly because a passing ship damaged a separate cable. The trio, who approached “hacking” from a different angle than usual, took to the water a day before repairs to the other cable were expected to be completed and service restored.
The effects of the ship taking out that cable were experienced as far away as Pakistan and India, Jim Cowie, chief technology officer at Renesys, a network security firm, told the Associated Press. Cowie noted that a severed cable can force wide scale data rerouting, with some of the packets traveling the long way around the world.
Ship anchors and propellers have been blamed for serious cable breakages in the Mediterranean that affected northern Africa. Perhaps this incident will cause investigators to cast a more jaundiced eye in future cases.
Willie Jones is an associate editor at IEEE Spectrum. In addition to editing and planning daily coverage, he manages several of Spectrum's newsletters and contributes regularly to the monthly Big Picture section that appears in the print edition.